So, you’ve got an important group engagement, and instead of it starting on time and on a promising note, has this ever happened to you?

It’s 9:12.  The meeting should have started 12 minutes ago.  As the project manager, you purposely had this monthly senior executive update scheduled for 9:00 – not too early so that you could avoid hearing the “bad traffic” excuse and not too late so that you could avoid “the last meeting ran over” excuse.

Yet, true to form, only a third of your audience is present – the ones who typically arrive on time.  And, the key person, the executive sponsor for the project, has yet to arrive.  She’s the one who will give the final sign-off on the status, and you don’t want to start without her.

The room is quiet, save a few whispers at the table, and you are feeling embarrassed that you are wasting the time of those who had the courtesy to show up at the time requested.  As the clock ticks off another minute, three more people show up, and you are wondering if next time you should tell those that are typically late that the meeting  will start at 8:45.

Mercifully, at 9:19, the executive sponsor appears.  You put on your “game face,” greet her and get the meeting started.  Fortunately, you had expected the meeting to start ten minutes late, so you don’t have to hurry through too much of the material.  But, the meeting runs over, so you rush the close, and at 10:08, the meeting abruptly ends because the executive has to run off to her 10:00 meeting in the next building.

Have you been there?  Have you done that?  Do you have the T-shirt?  Getting a meeting started on time is a common challenge. It is especially difficult when you are the project manager or an outside consultant working with an organization.

Unfortunately, most meeting leaders “punish the punctual” by making those who arrive on time wait for those who are late. In some organizations, punishing the punctual is such a cultural norm that participants have learned to arrive late to avoid “being punished.”

Strategies for Starting On Time

Of course, it is difficult to start a meeting when key participants are tardy. Consider these six strategies from The Effective Facilitator to develop a culture and a habit of better meeting practices, including starting on time.

  1. Get permission in advance from all participants to start the meeting at the appointed time, regardless of who is present. Explain that sometimes arriving late is unavoidable but that it is always important to respect people where possible.
  2. Make sure the meeting notice gives a gathering time AND a start time. Most people pay attention to the first time they see.
  3. Consider setting the start time for meetings for five minutes after the hour or half-hour to allow time for people to leave one meeting and arrive at the next one. For the project manager’s meeting above, the meeting notice might say: “8:50 Gather, 9:05 Start”
  4. If someone else other than you will kick off the meeting, make sure that person is aware of this role and that the two of you have agreed upon the time.
  5. Give a two-minute warning prior to the start to encourage people to take their seats.
  6. Consider gaining group agreement on a suitable penalty for arriving late such as a dollar donation to the “party pool” or responsibility for creating the meeting notes. On one project team in which I participated, the lateness penalty escalated by a factor of two with each incident :
  • – The first time anyone was late for a meeting, the penalty was $1.
  • – The next person who was late for any meeting, the penalty increased to $2.
  • – The following person to be late received a penalty of $4, and it could have been their first time being late. The next person – $8, and so on.
  • After someone paid $32, not a single person was late for a meeting for the rest of the project.  For this team, $64 was the threshold for behavioral change!

Learn more facilitation strategies like these (plus hands-on practice) in our course, The Effective Facilitator.  This four-day course provides a structured approach for leading groups and improving organizational effectiveness with over 100 team facilitation techniques.